The idea of using whimsy and fantasy as part of a training program makes some learning leaders nervous. Will learners take the training seriously? Will serious-minded audiences be offended by the lighthearted approach? And most importantly, what will stakeholders think?

When it comes to teaching children, the concept of incorporating fantasy into the learning experience is well-researched. Again and again, researchers find there are benefits to adding a fantasy component, especially in learning games. (Parker & Lepper, 1992; Asgari & Kaufman, 2004; HabgoodAinsworth, & Benford, 2005).

Researcher Thomas Malone is frequently cited on the topic of fantasy and games. In the 1980’s, Malone investigated why games are fun and what makes them motivational. He conducted a study that looked at a number of games and dissected the elements of fun. Through this process, he identified three elements that make games intrinsically motivating: challenge, curiosity, and fantasy.

Fantasy checks out as an effective approach for teaching children, but what about adult learning? Is there a way to incorporate it into corporate training and see a measurable learning benefit? The short answer is yes, it’s possible and something we highly recommend instructional designers use. Here’s why:

Fantasy creates an immersive learner experience

When you hear “immersive learning experience,” you probably envision some type of virtual or augmented reality – two buzzwords in the L&D industry right now. These technologies allow learners to be at least partly, if not fully, immersed in different situations. But amidst all the tech hype, I want to take you back to the old school version of an “immersive experience” – a story. Do you remember growing up when your parents or grandparents read books to you? Do you read books now to your own kids? If you do, you know the stories in the books serve as an immersive experience for them because children are easily entranced by fairytales and fantasies!

When it comes to learning application, Deena Skolnick Weisberg conducted a study that showed, contrary to the consensus opinion at the time, that fantasy-based approaches helped children learn the meanings of words and perform better on a post-test than more realistic approaches. This is because the fantasy elements capture their attention, and in turn, may help them to learn more.

Fantasy as an Adult Learning Tool

Although our child-like imaginations may fade, the concept of using fantasy elements for learning applies to adults as well. In this articleDr. Karl Kapp discusses how fantasy elements and story can aid in adult learning. He says that by anchoring content to a story or fantasy element, it becomes more memorable and possibly even emotional. Fantasy can improve memorization by provoking vivid images related to the material.

Fantasy can be a useful way to help adult learners accept situations they’d otherwise object to as not being realistic enough to fit their specific work world. The fantasy elements make it clear it’s not supposed to be an exact representation of their world. The ability to safely explore something we’d normally consider too “out there” to be a part of is one reason fantasy is engaging. In the workplace, mistakes can be costly. Allowing people to roleplay or imagine in an eLearning course is a safe practice area that causes no harm.

Fantasy creates emotional connections

A fantasy-based learning solution can also allow someone to connect with the learning experiences and temporarily forget real-world concerns or fears. This means that they don’t think to themselves “this is product differentiation training with clients and I’ve never done well in this area.” Instead, they work within the fantasy environment, which can help them transfer those skills to the real world.

To provide even more emotional connection, you could include characters in an eLearning course that have a high degree of personal relevance. This is so you can reach people of all different ages, gender, class, race, etc. depending on your target learners.

Fantasy motivates and engages in a whole new way

A few year ago, the US Military staged a zombie apocalypse as part of a counter-terrorism summit. Zombies invaded an island that was transformed with Hollywood-style sets, including a Middle Eastern village and a pirate cove. Some 1,000 US military personnel, police, and state and federal government officials were charged with responding.

“The zombie apocalypse is very whimsical. The scenario was created to add some levity to the more dire scenarios summit-goers will encounter including terrorists roaming hospital halls shooting people and pilots trapped behind enemy lines.”

fantasy for training
Tony Gutierrez/AP;

This kind of scenario training moves simulation into a new dimension, providing real-life experience solving fictional or “fantastical”—but realistic—problems. Training that focuses just on teaching the necessary material can lead to learner boredom, burnout, and tune-out. But by merging fantasy with reality, you’re likely to be more successful at keeping people engaged in training. And the more people are engaged, the more information they’re likely to retain. On the opposite spectrum, focusing too much on a fun, novel approach can lead to training that is not linked well to learning principles. The best learning solutions will connect these two extremes.

In general, fantasy elements should reinforce instructional goals, not compete with them. Fantasies should provide appropriate metaphors or analogies for the presented learning material. That being said, you don’t need to include fantasy in every single piece of training material. At some point, your learners need to practice the desired behavior in a more realistic setting.